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Peeling back the myth: Searching for the Real Doctor Faustus

Why has Faust's story continued to fascinate audiences?

By Elizabeth Davis (Former Editorial Assistant)

4 April 2014 at 5.56pm | Comment on this article

In the world of classical music, Faust is inescapable. Gounod’s 1859 opera Faust is only the most obvious example, next to a symphony by Mahler, and countless Lieder settings and works by BerliozMendelssohnRachmaninoffProkofievLiszt and Beethoven. The man who sold his soul to the devil seems to pop up all over the place.

But before Goethe’s popular retelling made Faust an Enlightenment symbol for humanity's vaunting ambition, he was just a man and he was almost certainly born around 1480.

Johann Georg Faust studied at Heidelberg University and is thought to have died around 1540. Though there are contemporary records that speak of how knowledgeable and well-travelled he was, little more is known of his life – other than that he was said to have come to a violent death, possibly in an explosion.

Less than fifty years after his death, however, the Faust myth had a deal more flesh on its bones. In the Faustbuch, a text written in 1587 and translated into English shortly afterwards, we are introduced to a man who ‘forgot the Lord his maker, and Christ his redeemer, became an enemy unto all man-kinde’ and ‘began to practice in his divellish Arte’.

The anonymous narrator leads us through Faust’s life, detailing – with undeniable relish – the food he eats (the best food and wine stolen from the cellars of European nobility), the magic he and Mephistopheles perform (which, among other devilry, resulted in Faust’s garden springing into full bloom in the depths of winter, to the astonishment of his neighbours) and the women Mephistopheles procured for the scholar (‘Seven of the fayrest women that he could finde in all those countries he have traveiled in’).

Finally, his violent end is described in graphic detail: ‘All the hall lay besprinckled with blood, his braines cleaving to the wall: for the Divel had beaten him from one wall against another, in one corner lay his eyes, in another his teeth, a pitifull and fearefull sight to beholde.’

The Faustbuch crafts a Christian morality tale out of this fantastical story, and ends with a prayer. But it wasn’t the Christian message that ensured the story’s lasting appeal. It was Faust’s ambition – and (much like Don Juan) all the fun he has on the road to damnation.

This was fertile ground for playwright Christopher Marlowe. In his version of the Faust legend, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1592), he turns Faust into a Renaissance scholar straining at the limits of the knowledge of the time:

'The end of physic is our body’s health. 
Why Faust, hast thou not attain’d that end? 
Is not thy common talk found aphorisms?
Yet art thou still but Faustus, and a man.
 Couldst thou make men to live eternally,
 Or, being dead, raise them to life again,
 Then this profession were to be esteem'd.'

Faust becomes a hero for an age of advances in science, technology and philosophy, an age some scholars claim was the period of greatest religious scepticism before our own. Marlowe’s Faust is an Icarus with wings not of feathers but knowledge.

In the 1770s, Goethe began to craft a post-theological Faust for the Enlightenment. This Faustus pities Mephistopheles’s attempt to seduce him with traditional sinful temptations: ‘Poor devil! What can you offer to me? A mind like yours, how can it comprehend / A human spirit’s high activity?’. The impact of Goethe’s play has been such that the figure of Faust has become a symbol for modern Western man.

Every generation re-imagines Faust in its own image, and Faustian Pack composers Luke Bedford and Matthew Herbert are only the latest interpreters in a long line. Even in this age of globalism, agnosticism and multiculturalism, we are as fascinated and haunted by Faust as were those medieval neighbours, gazing at his magical garden five hundred years ago.

Through His Teeth runs 3–11 April 2014; Faust 4–25 April 2014; and The Crackle 5–12 April 2014. Tickets are still available.Find out about the other events in the Royal Opera House’s Faustian Pack.

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